Because Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America, traveling from one end to the other is not too difficult. The bus routes are comprehensive. The roads, however, can be a bit rough, and the buses are often hot and crowded. If you're short on time, I recommend flying, which is cheap and efficient. If you're traveling only a short distance, though, say from Quito to Otavalo (around 2 hr.) or Riobamba (under 4 hr.), then a bus, shuttle, rental car, or car and driver may be your best bet.
Most of Ecuador's major cities and tourist destinations are serviced by regular and reliable commuter air traffic. In some places, remote destinations can best be reached by charter flights, organized by the lodges themselves.
Aerogal (tel. 1800/2376-425 toll-free nationwide; www.aerogal.com.ec), Icaro (tel. 1800/883-567 toll-free nationwide; www.icaro.aero), and Tame (tel. 02/3977-100; www.tame.com.ec), are the main commuter airlines.
With the exception of the Galápagos, which is quite expensive, most flights cost between $50 and $90 (£33-£60) for a one-way fare.
In Ecuador, all roads lead to Quito. From Quito, you can find a bus to every corner of the country, but don't expect to get anywhere quickly. Locals seldom board buses at the actual bus terminals. Instead, buses leave the station empty, and then drive very slowly through the outskirts of town, picking up passengers along the way. This adds considerable time onto most bus rides. Still, for relatively short distances, buses are your best and cheapest option. The journeys between Quito and Riobamba, Baños, Otavalo, and Cotopaxi are best served by buses, which leave frequently for these destinations. The road between Cuenca and Guayaquil is also a popular bus route.
In general, I don't recommend renting a car in Ecuador. For the most part, the roads are in bad condition; and because signs are nonexistent, it's very easy to get lost. For short-distance journeys, it's much more economical to take a bus, or even a taxi.
Nevertheless, if you're an adventurous type and you want to see the country from the privacy of your own car, you can certainly get a rental.
Budget (tel. 02/3300-979; www.budget-ec.com) and Hertz (tel. 02/2254-257; www.hertz.com) are the main rental-car agencies, with offices at both major international airports. At press time, Localiza was temporarily closed -- and may still be by the time you read this.
Because the roads are so poorly maintained, I recommend that you rent a 4WD, which are offered by all the agencies listed above. Rates run between $45 and $150 (£30-£100) per day, with unlimited mileage and insurance, depending upon the type of vehicle you rent.
One very interesting option is to use Rent 4WD.com (tel. 02/2544-719; www.rent-4wd.com), which gets you a large, modern four-wheel drive vehicle, unlimited gas and mileage, and driver, for just $150 (£100) per day. They even cover the driver's lodging expenses.
Road Conditions -- Most of the major highways in Ecuador are in pretty decent shape. But once you venture off the major thoroughfares, the situation deteriorates dramatically.
Even the major highways and tourist destinations are only sporadically marked with up-to-date signs and markers. And once you get off the beaten path, you may not encounter any signs or indications as you pass intersection after intersection.
Always keep an eye out for the sudden appearance of a pedestrian, bicycle rider, dog, or cow, even on major highways. It's best to avoid driving at night, as very few roads or highways are illuminated.
Maps -- Car-rental agencies and the Ministry of Tourism information centers at the airport and in downtown Quito have adequate road maps.
Driving Rules -- A current foreign driver's license is valid for the length of your 90-day tourist visa. Seatbelts are required for the driver and front-seat passengers.
Official driving rules are often ignored. Drivers seldom use turn signals or obey posted speed limits. Transit police are a rarity, but they will bust you for speeding. So keep to the speed limit (usually 60-90kmph/37-56 mph) if you don't want to get pulled over. Never pay money directly to a police officer who stops you for any traffic violation. Speeding and traffic tickets are usually charged to your credit card by your rental-car company.
Breakdowns -- Emergency services, both vehicular and medical, are extremely limited once you get far from Quito, Guayaquil, or any of the major tourist destinations. If you are a AAA member, contact the local affiliate Aneta (tel. 1800/556-677; www.aneta.org.ec), which can provide free towing, as well as other emergency services.
If you're involved in a breakdown or accident, you should contact the police. Throughout Ecuador, you can reach the police by dialing tel. 101 in an emergency. The tourist police may be of help, and are more likely to have someone on hand who speaks English. In Quito, the number for the tourist police is tel. 02/2543-983.
If your car breaks down and you're unable to get well off the road, check to see whether there are reflecting triangles in the trunk. If there are, place them as a warning for approaching traffic, arranged in a wedge that starts at the shoulder about 30m (98 ft.) back and angle gradually toward your car. If your car has no triangles, try to create a similar warning marker using a pile of leaves or branches. Finally, although not rampant, there have been reports of folks being robbed by seemingly friendly good Samaritans who stop to feign assistance.
Car-Rental Tips -- Although it's preferable to use the coverage provided by your home auto-insurance policy or credit card, check carefully to see if the coverage really holds in Ecuador. Many policies exclude 4WD vehicles and off-road driving -- much of Ecuador can, in fact, be considered off-road. It's possible at some car-rental agencies to waive the insurance charges, but you will have to pay all damages before leaving the country if you're in an accident. If you do take the insurance, you can expect a deductible of $750 to $2,100 (£500-£1,400). At some agencies, you can buy additional insurance to lower the deductible. To rent a car in Ecuador, you must be at least 21 years old and have a valid driver's license and a major credit card in your name.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.